French Women Composers of the 20th Century

Edith Lejet

Birth of a vocation


Edith Lejet was born in Paris in 1941. There were no professional musicians in her family, but, she says, her parents certainly had musical talents. Her mother played the piano, while her maternal grandfather, who was English, played the organ at the Anglican Church in Paris. Her father, an engineer, who had spent his early years in Italy, enjoyed Bel Canto, to which he had been introduced by Edith’s grandmother, who, born into a cultured Venetian family, sang these arias and played the violin.
She and her sister were taught by a piano teacher who was a family friend. Whilst her older sister was being taught, Edith listened fervently. Once the teacher had gone, Edith reproduced on the piano the pieces she had just heard. She had a very good ear that the teacher was able to perfect whilst also developing her musical sense.
From this beginning she starts playing the piano at four years of age and distinguishes herself during children’s competitions. Her family, perhaps misinformed, fail to recognise what her examiners saw as a special musical gift. This she regrets as in spite of her insistence, she was not directed towards a specialized education. From her earliest days and spontaneously, she never stops improvising with her voice or on the piano; the last pages of her exercise books at school are filled with invented decorative motifs where she worked to create forms and colours.
As a pupil at the Lycée Molière in Paris, she was captivated by the personality of her art teacher, a former student of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, who made the class take part in a competition. At ten years of age, she obtained a prize, and to her great surprise, she discovered her drawing exposed on a stand of the Salon de l’Enfance. At the Lycée, painting became her favourite lesson, and this preference took precedence, for the moment, over music.
When her parents bought a record player and a few discs, including Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, it was for her, a veritable discovery, a revelation. At fourteen she had never heard a symphonic work. This trigger was reinforced by her active participation in optional lessons in music at the Lycée and her joining associations enabling her to attend concerts. During one of these she heard the Symphonie Fantastique conducted by Charles Munch: this she remembers as a defining moment in her adolescence.
So music is triumphant: “for drawing, I had a certain gift”, she says “but in music I was the best pupil at the lycée….Further, I was full of enthusiasm, I no longer had doubts about my vocation”.
At the heart of her being was a refusal to envisage a life similar to that of her mother. Like her father, she wanted to have professional responsibilities. Apart from the arts, she enjoyed studying, particularly the sciences. The chance purchase of a recording of the twenty-four Chopin Etudes performed by Jeanne-Marie Darré made aware that, through the piano, a woman can reach heights until then reserved for men. New horizons were opened for her.
She continued her studies at the Lycée Molière and sat for the Baccalaureate with the intention of spending the following year preparing for the entrance examination to the Lycée La Fontaine, which was the official centre for training music teachers for the State Education System. Too young to sit for this examination, although in one year she had reached the required level, she entered the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris. There she followed the course on aesthetics taught by Marcel Beaufils, and the following year the course on harmony given by Henri Challan. Her studies at the Conservatoire were taking shape; they were to conclude with the course on composition given successively by Jean Rivier and André Jolivet.
During the period when she was exploring the artistic legacy of the past, she was much attracted by what was new and in general by modernism. Hence she keeps a vivid memory of her discovery of André Jolivet’s Concerto de piano, dynamic, coloured and exotic in the recording made with participation of Philippe Entremont as a pianist, which she played over and over again until the record was almost worn out. She did not know then, that she would one day be a student in André Jolivet’s class. She also wants to pay homage to Henri Dutilleux who, on several occasions and often for long periods of time, deputised for Jolivet, and was able tactfully and delicately to give precious advice to the young composers while respecting their individual personalities .../...

Christiane Gellion-Nowak
Translation by Norman Graves

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